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Panama's ex-dictator Noriega faces trial in Paris for money laundering

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2011-06-24

Charged with laundering Colombian drug money in French banks, Manuel Noriega, Panama's former dictator, is set to stand trial in Paris on Monday, two months after the US agreed to extradite him to France.

Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega faces money laundering charges that carry a 10-year jail sentence in a Paris court on Monday. At age 76, and after 20 years in a United States federal prison, the former strongman may spend his final days far from the country he once ruled over.

The request to extradite Noriega to France was granted by US federal appeals court in 2009 despite a bid by Noriega’s lawyer to block the move, and apparently, against the will of Panamanian authorities, who want Noriega to be judged in his home country for killing a political rival, among other crimes.

Noriega’s languid demise in the annals of the international justice system betrays his once fiery rise and fall from power in Central America.

From Washington ally to wanted criminal

France 24's Christopher Moore reports on the Noriega trial

In the early 1980s, as civil wars between Marxist-inspired guerrillas and US-backed militaries raged across Central America, Manuel Noriega became a trusted Washington ally in the fight against communism, and was allowed to consolidate power in his geographically-strategic country.

Noriega went from being Panama’s chief of police to the top military commander, also winning a job and remuneration as an informant for the US Central Intelligence Agency. Buy by the end of the decade the cosy relationship with Washington had come to a violent end.

In 1988 a Florida court slapped the strongman with drug trafficking charges, claiming Noriega was helping Colombian drug-traffickers smuggle tons of cocaine into the US. A full-scale 20,000-soldier strong US invasion ousted and detained him in December, 1989.

Noriega was taken to Florida to be convicted of drug trafficking and racketeering and ordered to serve 30 years behind bars.

Florida to Paris

On April 26, 2010, after spending almost half his life in US-custody, Noriega was once more handcuffed and shuttled away, this time from Florida to Paris. France accuses him of laundering 2.3 million euros of drug cartel money through the Bank of International Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which was closed in 1991 for fraud.

Upon his arrival on French soil, Noriega’s lawyers unsuccessfully fought to win his release from La Sante prison in Paris, saying that the general is being held in inhumane conditions. Judges have turned down the requests, citing a flight risk.

On Monday, Noriega’s lawyers will argue that Noriega should enjoy the immunity granted to former heads of state, and will also contend that the original sum of money in question came from a family inheritance and payments collected from the CIA.

The trial –and another inglorious chapter of Noriega’s life – will end on Wednesday.

Date created : 2010-06-28